Wednesday 23 January 2019

Discovery: A New Life of St Cybi

The Vitae Sanctorum Cambriae project (run between ASNC and CAWCS) is very excited to announce the discovery of a new medieval Life of St Cybi.

David Callander (research associate on VSC 2017–8) came across the Life while researching the jesuit scholar William Farrar. The Life survives only in Yale, Beinecke Library, Osborn fb229, a manuscript previously unknown to Welsh scholarship, but one of tremendous importance for the study of Welsh hagiography. This is a seventeenth-century hagiographic miscellany, containing copies of medieval texts in Welsh, Latin, and English. This manuscript has remained entirely unstudied by Welsh scholars, and it provides a wealth of new material for the study of medieval and early modern Wales.

The most significant new text in this manuscript is a unique version of the medieval Latin Life of St Cybi of Holyhead. Two versions of a Life of Cybi survive in British Library, Cotton Vespasian A XIV, the major source of surviving Cambro-Latin hagiography. These versions are very similar to one another and are without doubt reworkings of the same original Life. The Yale Life of Cybi is also related to these texts, but far more distantly. It contains unique material, including a description of Cybi meeting the pope and miraculously removing a boulder from the entrance to St Peter’s basilica.

The retention of medieval orthography throughout demonstrates that the Life as it stands is a medieval product rather than an early modern creation. Indeed, the Yale Life’s strong and constant focus on presenting Holyhead itself as a bishopric may be no later than the eleventh century, and bears comparison with the eleventh-century Life of Padarn, although parts of the Yale Life are clearly later medieval.

Almost as interesting as the Life itself are the unique prayers which follow it in the Yale manuscript, consisting in two antiphons and two collects. Liturgical remains of the native Welsh saints surviving from Wales itself are desperately rare, and these prayers provide a unique insight into the practice of devotion to native saints in medieval Anglesey.

This important neglected manuscript and this new medieval saint’s Life will open up paths for much further study. David aims to publish the fruits of his discovery in the near future.

Friday 28 September 2018

The Myth of Pelagianism

The Myth of Pelagianism is a new book by Ali Bonner, a member of the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic 

Pelagius is the first known British author, famous for his defence of free will as the Roman empire disintegrated. He advocated two ideas: that human nature was inclined to goodness, and that man had free will. After a campaign to vilify him he was excommunicated in ad 418 for allegedly inventing a dangerous new heresy, and his name was made a by‑word for wilful arrogance. The narrative of Pelagius the heresiarch has held sway unchallenged for 1,600 years, but it is the story written by those who sought to have him condemned, and it is untrue.

My research into the manuscript transmission of Pelagius’ works has revealed their largescale copying and wide availability across Europe throughout the middle ages. This was possible because his works travelled under false attributions to other Christian writers, and under these other names, Pelagius was a highly influential author. To better understand this phenomenon, I researched the history of the ideas that Pelagius advocated and found that he defended interpretations of the Bible that were mainstream in contemporary literature. In The Myth of Pelagianism I set out the evidence to show that Pelagius proposed nothing new; he repeated ideas that had been common in Christian literature for decades. This textual evidence suggests that Pelagius was entirely unoriginal and did not invent a new heresy as his opponents alleged. Instead he defended what was the mainstream understanding of Christianity at the time; far from being the leader of a separatist group, he was one of many propagandists for the ascetic movement, which was a broad movement that took many forms and was based on encouraging Christians to live the kind of life Christ advocated. Many factors contributed to the large scale of the copying of Pelagius’ works, but the critical cause was the fact there was no doctrinal difference between Pelagius’ writings and much other ascetic literature by writers whose names had no label of heresy attached. Medieval readers could not see a doctrinal difference between Pelagius’ writings and other ascetic literature, such as Jerome’s writings, because there was no difference. Pelagius’ distinguishing characteristic was that he was a particularly persuasive writer: he was good at getting inside his readers’ heads, and 1,600 years later he still is.

The accusation of heresy against Pelagius should be seen in the context of sociological analysis of the creation of deviance and of the function of heresy in religion. Pelagius is a perfect example of the constructed nature of heresy. Because his works survive we can see the gulf between what he wrote and the ideas his opponents attributed to him. We can also see why they created a misleading narrative about Pelagius. In order to install the doctrines they espoused in their version of Christianity, they needed to delegitimise the contemporary mainstream view of human nature and free will. Inventing a heretical group, labelling it, stigmatising it, creating a false narrative about Pelagius and disseminating it in a campaign of lobbying powerful people: these were the techniques used to transfer authority to their own version of Christianity and their own literary output. This was a battle for authority within the Church, and political power determined the outcome. The Christian scriptural expert against whose ideas Pelagius defended the mainstream view, and who had most to lose if Pelagius’ defence of the goodness of human nature and free will were allowed to stand, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine and his colleagues lobbied the western Roman emperor to issue an Imperial edict condemning Pelagius and to put pressure on the Pope to overturn his previous acquittal of Pelagius. When the Pope succumbed to the emperor’s pressure nineteen Italian bishops resigned their sees in protest at the improper process, requesting that the theological issues be decided in open discussion by a council of bishops. But power determined the content of doctrine on these questions, and their objections were ignored.           

Pick up a book or search online and you will find the same story: that Pelagius was responsible for a heresy which privileged human free will to the exclusion of God’s role in human decisions and epitomised arrogance. This is not true. Instead the evidence shows that ‘Pelagianism’ did not exist. The term ‘Pelagianism’ should be abandoned because it imports a false paradigm into discussion. A more accurate terminology is available: we can refer to the ascetic movement and the fervour with which many Christians expressed their own variations on the theme of living as Christ enjoined. The ideas that were successfully installed in 418 when Pelagius was condemned were that mankind was inherently sinful and was not in control of his moral choices, and that Pelagius taught that man could achieve virtue without divine help and personified arrogance. In 2018 it is time to revise our understanding of the history of Christianity in late antiquity to bring it into line with the manuscript and textual  evidence that has now been presented, so that as Éric Rebillard has counselled, we do not ‘reify groups under the influence of polemical source texts’.      

The Myth of Pelagianism by Dr Ali Bonner, Lecturer in Celtic History in the department of Anglo‑Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, was published by OUP in August 2018.

A link to a feature in The Church Times:

Friday 8 June 2018

After Winefride

One of the best things about working for the Vitae Sanctorum Cambriae project has been having the chance to edit the Latin lives of the border-crossing saint Winefride/Gwenfrewy. Winefride is presented as a seventh-century saint, although there is very little evidence for her cult before the twelfth century. 

In the first half of the twelfth century, two Latin lives of Winefride were composed. One is short, anonymous, and contains a long list of miracles at Winefride’s Well at Holywell. The other is far longer, and was composed by the verbose Robert, prior of Shrewsbury, between 1138 and 1142. 

This Life is especially interesting, as it contains an account of how Robert and others went to Winefride’s burial place at Gwytherin in around 1137 and dug her bones up and took them back with them to Shrewsbury, despite considerable local opposition. A prominent modern adaptation of this is the Brother Cadfael novel A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters. 

Robert of Shrewsbury’s Life was also translated and adapted into Middle Welsh and Middle English by the fifteenth century at the latest.

The Lives differ in many details but tell the same basic story, and probably both drew upon a lost Latin Life of Beuno (the source of the Middle Welsh Buchedd Beuno (just re-edited by Patrick Sims-Williams)), in which Winefride featured as a character. 

As a child, Winefride is taught by St Beuno, and decides to follow the holy life. One day, while her parents are at Mass, Caradog, the son of a king, comes to Winefride’s house and demands to marry her. Winefride manages to escape and runs to the church by her house, but Caradog realizes she has run away, and charges after her on horseback. Just as she is about to reach the church, Caradog cuts off her head.

St Beuno is saying Mass at the church at the same time. He comes outside and melts Caradog into the ground. Picking up Winefride’s body and head, he prays for God to resurrect her, which God does. 

After this, Winefride leads a holy life as a nun. In the anonymous Life, she goes on pilgrimage to Rome. In Robert’s Life, she heads deeper into Wales, going through Bodfari and Henllan before dying at Gwytherin, where she also dies in the anonymous Life. 

Map of important sites in Winefride's Lives

I decided it was high time for me to take a look at the sites associated with Winefride for myself. (Sadly I didn’t manage to make it to Rome, but I did pop by Rhyl on the way back).


Rhedodd o’r ddaear hoywdeg,
Rho Duw o chwŷl, rhadau chweg.

This is the main site of devotion to Winefride, both now and in the Middle Ages. It survived the Reformation and somehow managed to thrive up to the modern day. 

The well used to be supplied with a huge amount of water from a natural source, but this was disturbed by industrial work in modern times, and the water now comes from a public source.

The shrine is situated on a slope. In Robert’s Life, Winefride’s head actually rolls down the hill into the church, to the horror of the parishoners. 

Immediately above the well survives the medieval chapel dedicated to Winefride. 

There was much work undertaken at this site at the close of the Middle Ages by Thomas Pennant, abbot of the nearby Basingwerk Abbey (also worth a visit!) This was celebrated by a number of Welsh poets of the time, including Tudur Aled, who composed a cywydd to Gwenfrewy and her well.


This is Winefride’s first stop on the journey to Gwytherin, according to Robert’s Life. 

Winefride is told by a divine message to meet St Diheufyr at Bodfari. He is soon also urged by a divine message to send Winefride to Henllan, so Bodfari was only a quick stop.


The church at Henllan is interesting in that the tower (now seemingly used as an elaborate broom-cupboard) is separated from the body of the church.


At Henllan, so Robert of Shrewsbury tells us, Winefride meets St Sadwrn, who apparently receives her in a kindly manner, although he wastes no time in sending her on to Gwytherin.


At Gwytherin, Winefride meets St Eleri, and later leads a community of nuns. It is here that Winefride dies for the second and final time.

Standing Stones at Gwytherin (one contains a sixth-century inscription!)

Robert provides more details about Gwytherin from his travels there to take Winefride’s bones away. He notes that there were two cemeteries: one for saints, and one for those who die now.

One of these (the saints’ graveyard) is now an empty field, but is thought to have contained Winefride’s chapel (demolished in the eighteenth century). 

Gwytherin was certainly the quietest of all the locations on the journey. 

The church itself closed in 2005. After this, its most important remaining artefacts were moved to Holywell. Perhaps I should have ended the pilgrimage by travelling to Shrewsbury but I could not bring myself to it.

David Callander
(Bydd fersiwn Cymraeg o'r blogiad hwn yn ymddangos ar wefan